Last year's season was an unqualified success for the Bulldogs of Starkville.
They got to nine wins for just the third time since World War II (1980, 1999). They won their second straight Egg Bowl. They beat Florida in Gainesville for the first time since 1965. They took the eventual national champion to the wire, losing by just three, and took the division's second place team to double overtime. They trashed Michigan in the bowl game to boot.
So what do you do for an encore?
Dan Mullen talked about wanting to win the SEC West before last season, and everyone kind of gave a polite chuckle. While State beat just about everyone's expectations for the season, it still finished just fifth in the West. It was an honest fifth too, as the team lost to the four squads above it in the standings. Two of those losses were close as documented above, but the other two losses to the league's defensive powerhouses were by more than 20 points apiece.
That brings up something discussed in the charts for 2010: the area that needs improvement most is Mullen's offense. The team was held to 14 points or less in half of its SEC games last year. It rushed for nearly 40 fewer yards per game than in 2009. The 4.9 yards per play they gained was ahead of only the hapless Vanderbilt offense in league play. Passing did improve slightly, but it wasn't enough to keep pace with the passing improvements that happened throughout the rest of the conference.
Losing Anthony Dixon, the San Francisco 49ers' third-leading rusher in 2010, was going to hurt the offense, but it ended up being more lo-fi than I think most realize. Gaudy blowouts over Memphis, Alcorn State, and a Michigan team waiting for its coach to be fired papered over a lot of the issues. When it comes down to it, this fall will be Mullen's seventh season coaching in the SEC. He's a known quantity at this point, and his spread option offense is no longer one that gives less-talented teams an edge thanks to its widespread use.
Much of last year's team improvement came from the dramatic leap the defense made. For instance, it jumped up from 11th to 6th in the SEC in yards per play allowed, 11th to 5th in yards allowed per pass attempt, and (this is the big one) 11th to 3rd in scoring defense. The credit for a lot of that can be split between coordinator Manny Diaz and a strong front seven.
Diaz left after just one year to take over the defense at Texas, and that front seven has just two guys coming back. Mullen's recruiting on the D-line means that unit should still be solid, but the team has questions at linebacker. The defense is going to fall off some, so the offense will need to pick up some slack.
Mullen has more goodwill going than perhaps any other coach in the conference. MSU 2011 season tickets sold out at the earliest date ever, and his name was thrown around for some bigger jobs last winter. A hot topic in some corners of discussion is whether this will be his final year at Mississippi State. He seems pretty happy where he's at, so I can't say whether he's looking elsewhere.
If he is, then it'll be in his best interest to pull another nine wins out of his hat. Anything less won't make for another stunning season in Starkville.